LOS ANGELES — If anyone can sympathize with Utah quarterback Adam Schulz, it would be Jon Hays. He’s walked a mile in Schulz’s cleats, maybe more.
In fact, he just finished up his own trek.
Hays knows the unrelenting personal drama of filling in for a proven starter. One minute you’re just a face in the crowd, next minute you’re the “field general.” But if things go as planned, the starter returns and you’re back where you began.
Hays certainly understands this. Three years ago he was wrapping up a career at Butte College in California, looking forward to playing at Nebraska-Omaha. Then the Mavericks announced they were mothballing their program. Hays ended up at Utah, where he sat, started, sat.
“There are highs and lows,” says Hays, now the quarterbacks coach at Butte, “but every week is a new week.”
And every week is a question. For instance, Saturday’s game against Southern California. Who will play the most? Schulz subbed in for an injured Travis Wilson during a loss to Arizona last week. Before that, Wilson insinuated his lacerated hand was a glorified scratch. Turned out he could barely get the ball on the correct side of the stadium, much less the right spot. Schulz played as well as one could expect, going 12-23 for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Wilson says he plans to start against USC, wearing a protective glove, but what does that mean? One glancing blow and Schulz could again be summoned.
Hays and Schulz arrived at Utah at the same time. Schulz was a walk-on from Muskego, Wis., but as No. 3 on the depth chart, he redshirted that season. Now he could be playing against a Trojan team that is lower than normal on wins (four), but still high on talent, with one of the better defensive fronts in the country.
“My advice to Adam is to keep doing what he’s been doing,” says Hays, who is friends with Schutz. “He has progressed every year he’s been there. He’ll continue to get better.”
For Hays, who started nine games as a junior, it was a dizzying run. At first he was an insurance policy, added during the summer of 2011 after several flashier quarterback options went elsewhere. There was no plan to play Hays unless things went sour, which they did when starter Jordan Wynn was injured in the fourth game. Suddenly Hays was the coaches’ new best friend. He wasn’t perfect, but he exceeded expectations, taking Utah to an 8-5 record, 6-3 as a starter. That included a three-touchdown-pass performance in Utah’s Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech.
But in 2012 things were as unsettled as ever. Wynn survived only until the second game, when an injury preempted him for good. Hays came on, even leading the Utes to a win over BYU, but after starting in losses to Arizona State and USC he was again archived, with Wilson moving up.
Publicly Hays played the good soldier, but privately he had to be nonplussed. What did they want? One thing seemed clear: patience isn’t Whittingham’s strong suit.
“The coaches are always supportive of everyone,” Hays says, “but it’s a business mentality at that level. Everybody is there to win games. It’s their job to put the right people in place to do that. You’ve got to just put your head down and work through everything.”
Whittingham said on Monday that he would use both Schulz and Conner Manning in practices, in case they’re needed against USC. There’s an outside chance if Wilson’s hand remains (literally) shaky, and since Manning is a freshman and Schulz a sophomore, the same scenario as last year could occur.
Maybe it should be a reality series: “Keeping up with the Quarterbacks.”
With a bye next week, the Utes could let Wilson sit against USC, giving him two weeks to heal. But Utah is two wins shy of bowl eligibility, so playing numbers is risky. Either way, Hays says the Utes will get back to bowl business.
“I’m saying they’re going to make a bowl game,” Hays says. “I’m not predicting their final record, but they’ll make a bowl game.”
As for who will lead them there, Hays doesn’t know — which is understandable. He didn’t always know when he was playing, either. In that sense, nothing has changed. It’s never easy tending the store until the manager returns.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company